Antonya Nelson: Master of the Short Story

Article by ben

Midway through her new book, Houston resident Antonya Nelson describes a suburban scene that’ll feel familiar to any resident of the Gulf Coast: “The night was soggy, Houston autumn, frogs like squeezeboxes wheezing in and out.” But if this image feels like a mirror held up to a reader’s own suburban life, the next sentences fly into it like rocks, shattering the reflection: “Her neighbor’s nakedness seemed sad and enervated, breasts flat on her chest, a kind of melted look to the rest of her flesh, ankles thick on splayed feet. Southern belle in decline, a dismal ‘after’ picture.”

This story, “Chapter Two,” is an example of what makes FUNNY ONCE such an ambitious collection of fiction. It takes as its premise a visit from a naked older woman to her younger neighbor’s home. The older woman has been wandering the humid streets with her clothes shed, as if her loneliness is something she can sweat from her pores. But Nelson, a writer forever in search of further complications, makes a substantial narrative leap: the encounter with the naked neighbor becomes a story the younger woman tells to her AA group as a way of not discussing her own issues. The pieces in FUNNY ONCE work this way, forever shifting under the reader’s feet as they portray an adult life fraught with sinkholes; whenever you get a grasp on what the author is trying to do, she adds another, more dangerous layer. Adult life, Nelson seems to suggest, is a process of discovering uncomfortable truths.

And what are those uncomfortable truths? Often they come unannounced from the past, jarring the stability of the present day. In many stories, visitors from the past—whether it’s the stepdaughter from a previous marriage who makes a 2 a.m. call in “First Husband,” or the heartbroken ex-best friend who reaches out in “Winter in Yalta”—drive the plots forward. But perhaps the most resonate moment comes fleetingly in the collection’s best story, “The Village”: an old man in a nursing home, speaking to a series of hallucinations, each of which corresponds to a person from his past whom he has yet to shake.

This moment, like the whole of FUNNY ONCE, proves a powerful reminder of the ghosts we carry with us—apparitions that, even if we can’t always see them, form the foundations of our lives.

Antonya Nelson reads from and signs copies of FUNNY ONCE at 7pm on Monday, June 23rd

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